Must the tail always wag the dog? Of activism and strategy.

Thinking strategically is very very hard.   The normal activist mode is to move (or, uncharitably, lurch) from one ‘crucial’/urgent; upcoming event to the next. It might be a camp, or a march, or a submission to some government ‘consultation’. It might be a public meeting, the launch of a document, whatevs.

You can spend literally years (decades) sitting in planning meetings where various people have sent their apologies, where the agenda is filled with seemingly crucial decisions, in meetings that are either well facilitated or poorly facilitated.

But the quality of the facilitation (turn-taking, time-keeping) is often irrelevant, because the decisions being made are purely tactical, and based on unspoken assumptions (about what the group is trying to achieve, how it is trying to achieve, what the model of social change is) that never get brought out into the light for consideration.

And so the wheel – what I’ve called the emotathon, or emotacycle – keeps turning, with new people churning in and dropping out after two or three such ‘big events’  (over a year or two).


The hard core activists, who have a model of social change based on vanguard parties, or who get their emotional/social needs met through Activism (capital A) either don’t notice or don’t care, or do notice and care, but feel that there is no alternative.

So the same stuff keeps happening, based on unspoken assumptions that we have to ‘tell the policymakers The Truth (information deficit). That we  just need to get in the media, that we need to make ourselves welcoming to the mythical ‘newbies’.

And even if you COULD get everyone to see this pattern, then you’d still struggle to escape the routine ways of doing things.

Because these are deeply entrenched (and unspoken) assumptions and habits.

And beyond that (because of that?) the skills of strategic thinking (even on a time scale of a year) either distrusted (‘you’re a control freak’) or derided (‘there you go, building castles in the air’ or ‘more masturbation, not practical ACTIONS, comrade’). Or both at the same time.  And alongside this there is the elision – conscious or otherwise – of mobilising and movement-building….

So, the skills are not perceived as necessary, not respected, not rewarded. No wonder they are not developed.

And while  some of us know we should do it, but it’s hard to do it on your own, and when the imperative of a 90 minute meeting is to make decisiosn about the coming weeks.  There’s simply no time for discussion of where we’re trying to be in a year’s time.


So, what is to be done?

Well, if you try to do a separate ‘visioning’ session, you will have some people not be able to come, some people deliberately NOT come (because they don’t have those skills, or because they don’t want to be ego-fodder). Alongside that, you’ll attract people with limited past and less future in the group who just want to grandstand and spout but who won’t be available to do any of the work involved in turning the strategy into deeds.

So, what I think needs to happen is that elements and habits of strategic thinking have to be folded into ‘ordinary meetings’ – just a few minutes (i.e. about 20) at a time.

And based on recent experience, I’d say that the best way forward would be to have people work in pairs or threes, and do back casting from a year, “on the other side”

(More than that in a group is intimidating for some, and means a confident people can easily dominate, and is more keen to do so.)

A facilitator has to have sorted out good simple prompting questions.  I’d go for one of the following

  •  “what knowledge, skills and relationships do YOU want to have a year from now, in the context of this campaigning groups aims and goals?”
  • “what knowledge, skills and relationships do you think the group should have a year from now, in the context of this campaigning groups aims and goals?”
  • “what are the points of failure (where knowledge, skills and relationships are absent or held only in one or two individuals) in the group that we need to lessen in the coming year?”

Work in pairs or threes for say 10 minutes on one of them, and then have a plenary, that is typed up and circulated, so that people who were not present feel up to speed.

Would this work? Probably not in the sense of getting a group to have a Big Hairy Audacious Goal that looks forward a year and guides its decisions, but it would at least foreground the knowledge, skills and relationships questions, and sensitise individuals to some thinking beyond the next few weeks/couple of months.

But it won’t happen, and that’s one of the many reasons I ain’t doing any more activism.  Gonna follow the Cocker protocol in the declining years of the species.

Technology to the rescue? #HybridWorldAdl

In 1759 the English essayist Samuel Johnson had some wise words about techno-hype.  He said

“When the philosophers of the last age were first congregated into the Royal Society, great expectations were raised of the sudden progress of useful arts; the time was supposed to be near, when engines should turn by a perpetual motion, and health be secured by the universal medicine…..”  

Johnson, like many sceptics of technology, struggled to keep his schadenfreude under control-

“… improvement is naturally slow. The society met and parted without any visible diminution of the miseries of life. The gout and stone were still painful, the ground that was not ploughed brought no harvest, and neither oranges nor grapes would grow upon the hawthorn.” (see video here)

Johnson would have in equal parts bamboozled and enthralled by a two-day conference Hybrid World Adelaide where new promises of technological solution for economic, environmental and social problems were propounded, alongside quite but powerful words of caution.

Hype-ridden or hybrid world?
Adelaide has (outside of “Mad March”) a sleepy image – “the streets are so wide, everybody’s inside, sitting in the same chairs they were sitting in last year” – which the state and city government are understandably keen to challenge.  They provided significant support, arguing that it is an“opportunity to extend South Australia’s reputation as a key tech destination for international visitors and businesses alike.”  This argument – that cities are competing to attract footloose global capital, is known in academia as ‘the spatial fix’  (first propounded by Marxist geographer David Harvey.  But broadband, stable tax regimes and an educated workforce is not on its own enough. In the words of one presenter, Anton van den Hengel   “ a lot of places [smart people] are asked to work by their companies suck. Adelaide doesn’t suck.”

There was an impressive range (and gender balance) among the speakers. The conference proper began with an overview of ‘five technologies that will shape your future’ from the conference’s creative director, Robert Tercek  (author of ‘Vaporised’ ). Over the course of the two days the various presenters spoke to each other’s work, raising questions elided by others, and occasionally fruitfully disagreeing.  Topics included empathic computing, machine learning (not to be conflated with artificial intelligence), space archaeology and, inevitably, smart cities.

There were a series of intriguing factoids thrown out.

  • In four years the number of Australian space start-ups has gone from one to…  eighty.
  • The price of monitoring a cow (handy for proving provenance) has tumbled from a thousand dollars to a few cents
  • Be careful with v-signs on social media – photo resolution is getting so high that your fingerprints could be scanned and used to open your devices
  • The medical advances around software and diagnostics mean photos of your retina taken with an adapted mobile phone will be able to spot heart disease and diabetes, while Chest CT scans can give a good indication if you’ll be alive in five years

The two most compelling presentations (and there was stiff competition) came on the first day.  An anthropologist- Professor Genevieve Bell had even hardened mining engineers sitting up and take notice.  Having pointed out that many of the new technologies relied upon enormous electricity consumption, and that therefore there might be times when AI was not the sustainable option even if it promised’ efficiency savings’, she argued that underlying the enthusiasm for information technologies were differing sets of assumptions and cultural goals. In the west, companies like Google and Facebook are hoovering up information ultimately to sell you things, while in China the focus is more on the creation or maintenance of ‘social harmony’.  Having interrogated the origins of the term Artificial Intelligence, Bell ended with a riff on Arthur C Clarke’s line that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic.  Instead, Bell said, our technologies should be about making magic.

Soon after, her suggestion was met.  When Marita Cheng , a young tech entrepreneur, founder of Robogals /and much else, demonstrated a mobile phone app   that announced what it was ‘seeing’ at eight objects a second, you could hear jaws hitting the floor.  Cheng followed this up with demonstrations of ‘telepresence’ robots,  which, among other things, would enable sick children to still ‘attend’ school.

The conference itself, bigger and better than last year’s effort  was itself a kind of hybrid – not ‘critical’ enough to be academic and  too broad-ranging to be a trade show (you don’t often get anthropologists and archaeologists on the stage).  But it’s this sense of daring, and of ‘ecosystem building’ – of creating the conditions for lateral thinking and serendipity, that the organisers constantly invoked.

As such, it wasn’t a space for interrogating the darkside of tech.  The dominant way of thinking about this was that ‘bias’ (a deviation from the ‘reasonable’ Gene Rodenberry-esque future) might happen, but active malice was ignored,  This was also a feature of the recent Adelaide Festival of Ideas: these events recruit their speakers from universities and start-ups, and  both tend to be relatively uncritical about technology. There are honourable exceptions.

Venture capitalists don’t give money to people who think tech will make the world worse (or poorer) Ask questions that are too awkward too awkwardly and you won’t be invited… A speaker warning of the panspectron,  of the power of autonomous weapons, might have darkened the mood a bit too much…

The gigabit economy?

Adelaide’s mass manufacturing base (never strong) is in poor shape.  Will the unfolding effort  to wire up the city centre for superfast connectivity provide an alternative economic base? Who gets left behind in this economy?  How do people retrain for a very different future? Might the ‘lucky country’ end up – as someone once warned – a banana republic?

There’s a lot to play for.  It will be interesting to see if the Liberal State government – represented at the conference by the newly-minted minister David Ridgway – can get past the fact that this sort of ‘attract the techies’ work was associated with the Weatherill government, and reach not just for current Liberal prime minister’s enthusiasm for ‘innovation and agility’,  but hark back to the state-building vision of a legendary (Liberal) premier- Thomas Playford.

Time will tell. Samuel Johnson might yet be proved right.

Letter on nuclear power and #climate. Predictable outrage to follow… #shitstirringon2continents

So, the (Adelaide) Advertiser published my letter!

2018 07 24 advertiser letterJohn Patterson of the Australian Nuclear Association (SA Branch) writes that he believes that nuclear is “the one big hope for combatting climate change” ((The Advertiser, 23/7/18).  This purported climate ‘solution’ has been a continuing argument by the nuclear industry since the 1970s.  Numerous reports have shown that the costs in building and  decommissioning plants, alongside storage of waste, are prohibitive, before the  the lengthy building time is even considered.

Proponents of nuclear and also carbon capture and storage keep making their innumerate claims about decarbonisation, while meanwhile wind, solar and battery storage -speedily installed and providing green energy-  are providing our only (slender) hope for reducing emissions.

My prediction: Over the next few days the letters page of the Tiser will be full of fall out – hyperventilating and hyperbolic attacks and defenses of the latest pebble-dash sooper-dooper generation x or xi amazeballs reactors.  Just you watch…

Books I absolutely did not buy #94. Absolutely not… (forgive me, Dr Wifey)

I didn’t go to the secondhand book fair on Fullarton Road today.  I didn’t buy the following books.  And I give my reasons why I didn’t buy each on


earth sound coverI didn’t buy this 1975 disaster novel for a buck, written as it is by the guy who a couple of years later did the first real climate change novel (cli-fi as it’s now called) ‘Heat’.  Definitely didn’t buy this because of the whole ‘earthquake’ thing like Icequake and that British one.i I can’t remember the title of.








earth sound back cover.jpg

ruins of earth cover.JPGI didn’t buy this collection of short stories about ecological devastation, published in 1973, which in no way connects to my fascination with that late 60s/early 70s sense of ‘oh fuck’.  Nope, didn’t buy this, even though it was only a buck.






aus sci fi back cover2.JPG

It’s really good that I didn’t buy those two, because then I’d have had momentum towards buying this volume on Australian Science Fiction, published in 1982.

aus sci fi cover.JPGaus sci fi back cover.JPG

and amidst all of that, if I had bought those three, I’d have felt compelled (despite its lurid cover) to buy a novel, published in 1970, by Marge Piercy (author of the brilliant Vida, Body of Glass and Gone to Soldiers) about doomed radicals.  I mean, it was only a buck, but I resisted, oh yes.

dance the eagle to sleep cover

dance the eagle to sleep back cover.JPG

And having resisted all those purchases, it took every ounce of willpower not to buy a famous Australian proletarian novel – one which I am only aware of because of very smart commenters on the Conversation, also for a buck….

unknown industrial prisoner cover.JPG

and having not bought those, it was relatively easy to not buy two Parker novels for two bucks each.  So I won’t get to read more adventures of a fantastically amoral killer, books.  So, dodged some bullets, eh?

man with getaway face cover.JPG

the jugger cover.JPG

Waste is women’s work? #Adelaide #auspol

The question was designed to be difficult, and the answers were in equal parts cautious and revealing.  Rather than about recycling – the topic of a tightly run panel discussion put on at the King’s Head by Adelaide Sustainability Connect and the SA Young Professionals Group of Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) – the question was about the audience.  Noting that this – and another recycling meeting last week (link) – had an audience gender ratio of 3 or 4 to 1, the questioner asked the panellists if such a ratio was normal, if it mattered and if so, what could be done – or is it just that men don’t care about recycling?

The panel, made up of Linley Golat, Sustainability Educator at Cleanaway, Lynda Wedding, Waste & Recycling Education Officer at the City of Onkaparinga, and Tim Johnston, Logistics Officer from Veolia had been dealing with less sociologically-focussed issues. The emcee, Matt Allen, had drawn each of them out on their work, its challenges and not just the ‘easy’ items to recycle, but also paint, electronic waste and medical waste.

Ms Wedding said that the audience gender mix was about standard, but that this was not necessarily a problem, since the research showed that it was women (wives and mothers) who manage the household  (the sentence ‘keeping the men in line’ was uttered tongue-in-cheek), and that events such as the one tonight, standing room only, with about 60 people present, were important for getting the word out.

Ms Golat was able to sidestep the first question, by saying that this was her first ‘public’ event – most of her work takes her to kindergartens, schools and businesses. She did not that when, as part of her job, she goes door-to-door, invariably and regardless of gender, the person who answers the door always points the finger of blame at other occupants of the property for any environmental shortcomings.

Mr Johnstone argued that things were slowly improving in terms of awareness of waste issues and the need to recycle, and pointed to his own household, where he does the heavy-lifting on these issues.

Other questions also brought interesting responses. Mark Parnell, MLC, asked whether the panel supported legislation given that education was a very slow process and exhortation had its limits. The panel was again cautious, but Ms Golat celebrated the outlawing of e-waste into landfill, and Adelaide City Council’s impending ban on plastic straws at events and plastic at public events.

Responding to a question on where soft plastics (e.g. food wrapping) can be recycled, Ms Wedding pointed to the ‘redcycle’ programme initiated by Coles, which has now been taken up by Woolworths in the aftermath of a scandal in which ABC’s War on Waste had installed geotracking on two bins of plastic recycling waste which found one had gone to landfill and the other overseas.  Wedding pointed to 11.2 tonnes of soft plastic being recycled in South Australia every months, and the company Replay turning that into a range of products.

Ms Wedding pointed to demand outstripping supply for organic waste to turn into compost, and all panellists urged for a greater community and business effort to divert organic waste from landfill.

A question on whether the ratio of recycling to ‘normal’ waste collection could be altered (to further incentivise householders to think where they put what) came up against the statutory obligations on councils, which nonetheless are keen – if only for budget reasons – to optimise their collections.

Adelaide Sustainability Connect organises these monthly meetings – details can be found on their facebook page

Q and A next week is devoted to waste and recycling, and ABC’s influential War on Waste returns next week.

“Stop building coal-fired power stations” say green groups. In 1988. #auspol #climate ffs

This species. I mean, seriously.


1988 11 07 greenhouse switch

Anon, 1988. Greenhouse Switch. Australian Financial Review, 7 November, p.4

Australian governments should stop building coal-fired power stations as a start to combatting the greenhouse effect, conservation groups said yesterday. A group of 25 conservation, consumer and other community organisations said brown coal was the “dirtiest” of the fossil fuels and produced higher levels of carbon dioxide than black coal, oil and natural gas. Increased emissions of gases, such as carbon dioxide, have been blamed for a forecast gradual warming of the earth’s atmosphere. The group said Australia should start switching power generation to the cleanest fossil fuel – natural gas.




Save the earth? Yes, but not if it costs…. #auspol #climate history 1982

So, there was this thing called the Australian Environment Council, made up of Federal and State ministers of the environment. It was set up in 1972 and had a long-ish run.  And, as is the nature of these beasts, it produced Reports.

And number 7, published in 1982,  was on the public’s willingness to pay for clean air.

1982 aec public willingness cover


And this on page 4 (part of the executive summary) is (pardon the pun) priceless.

1982 aec publiic willingness p4
Plus ca change….

(And no, I am not falling for the regressive/reactionary line that individual consumers are to blame, that there is no such thing as capitalism/state constraint of ‘choices’.  I’m just saying that unless civil society organisations work harder and smarter than they have done then these sorts of ‘tragedy of the commons’ things are very likely.)

What we knew on #climate in 1971… #auspol

A couple of years ago the folks at the Conversation asked me to bash out a piece on what Australians knew about climate change in the late 60s, early 70s. I did an okay-ish job, but have since radically expanded my knowledge of that period.  What we have below is not the first mention of climate change in books (you could see A Dirty Story and The Effluent Society both published 1970), but this is one of the more detailed ones, and was written by a couple of well-respected scientists.

I plan, #afterthethesis (which is imminent), to do something more systematic about who said what when (and it went all the way to the top – Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony, in 1971, f. ex).  For now, this – climate change was being spoken of in terms of foreboding back in 1968-9 by Australian scientists…

1971 conservation cover

but don’t judge a book just by its FRONT cover…

1971 conservation back cover

and then there is a mention in the first chapter…

1971 conservation page 27

1971 conservation page 28

Costin, A and Marples, T. 1971. The Nature and Quality of Resources in Costin, A and Frith, H. (eds) Conservation. Ringwood, Victoria: Pelican pp.  11-42.

We’re so toast.

WTAF ABC? Deafening #climate silence on Radio National. #frydenberg #auspol #chomsky

‘The Australian Energy Market Operator has just released a report on the future of the Australian energy market.  Giles Parkinson over at has probably already got a 4000 word forensic demolition of it posted [sort of].  It is clearly going to be used by various shades of fossil fuel friends to say “only coal can provide reliable cheap baseload power,” their dominant (and false to the point of hilarity) meme.

But this: This morning as I walked around the park with the backpack full of logs and bricks, I had my transistor radio with me.  And I heard an extraordinarily poor interview on the flagship RadioNational program by some guy called Hamish McDonald, interviewing the energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg about the AEMO report.  It went on for about fifteen excruciating minutes.  Here are some words that never were uttered: climate change, carbon dioxide, emissions, Paris Agreement.

I can understand Frydenberg not wanting to bring them up (every time he does, the Nationals have a hissy fit), but the craven surrender by the ABC guy (the ABC is being bullied into submission much as the BBC has been) will be very hard to explain to kids 20 years from now, as the really serious shit is hitting the fan.

Chomsky nailed this when he and Edward Herman talked about the manufacturing of consent, of thought control in democratic societies.

And here, courtesy of a brilliant friend of mine, is a twitter thread from Alex Steffen

It is very difficult for most members of the American press/academia/punditry to accept the idea that their core thinking on climate change and the planetary crisis has been bounded and shaped by Carbon Lobby propaganda… much less grapple with the implications of that fact. 1/

Nothing under the sun. Not “new”, no nothing (Nietzsche).

another in the fun series “Marc clears his gmail while hunting down thesis additions”

On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense

1873 Essay

Translated from: Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinn


Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life.